Google In-App Billing: A Promising Start, But Several Potential Friction Points

After testing it out today, in-app payments on Android is a promising start. But it still has a long way to go.

Following several months of preparation and anticipation, Google pushed in-app billing out to consumers yesterday afternoon. It lets people pay for virtual goods or currency in an app after they’ve downloaded it, opening a new monetization route for Android developers who have relied mostly on advertising so far. If Google can get this right, it’s a big deal for Android developers who are genuinely attracted to the platform’s reach but still have reservations about how lucrative apps can be compared to those on iOS.

After several tests this morning with different apps and on two phones (a brand-new HTC Thunderbolt and an older Motorola Droid), there are lots of little hiccups that might prevent consumers from paying for virtual goods the way they’ve balked at paying for apps on Android Market. (Developers have historically seen a fraction of the paid downloads they get on iOS simply because the Android Market user experience is not as smooth and because Google Checkout doesn’t have a huge database of credit cards.)

In Glu Mobile’s Gun Bros, I really had to try to pay for Warbucks. In contrast on the iPhone, I literally click a button and a prompt from Apple will show up. Then I click “Yes” and then the virtual currency shows up in the game.

I don’t point this out to sound like a Luddite, but I just wanted to make note of the multiple potential drop-off points where a less determined gamer or a non-tech-savvy, mainstream consumer might give up on paying in a game. (To be fair, the iPhone is my primary phone so I’m also not as fluent with the Android interface):

  • First, I opened up the virtual currency store inside the game, but it said I needed to have an updated version of Android Market that supported in-app billing.
  • Android Market wasn’t automatically updating like it is supposed to, so I had to go into ‘Settings’ to ‘Manage Applications’ to check what version of the Market I had. Indeed, it was old. So yes, I had to figure out how to update it. I mucked around for awhile. I’m not sure exactly what I did, but it eventually updated itself several hours later. It’s pretty well known that Android has fragmentation issues with versioning: about 8 percent of users are still on the older Cupcake or Donut editions, while about 90 are on Eclair or Fro-Yo. Less than 2 percent are on the very newest Gingerbread or Honeycomb versions.
  • I opened up Gun Bros again, but the app didn’t detect that I had the updated version of Market. So I had to close it again and then reopen it before I could pay for Warbucks.
  • Then of course, I had to go through the Google Checkout payment flow. If you’ve paid for content before, it’s pretty much designed to be like the iTunes experience: press buy and you’re done. If you’re a first timer, it asks you to fill out a form including your name, address and credit card details. When people buy Android phones, they don’t need to register their credit card details with Checkout the way they do with iTunes when they buy an iPhone. This means Google’s credit card database is a fraction of the size of Apple’s. Many prospective buyers probably drop off here.
  • In Tap Tap Revenge, I tried to buy a Nicki Minaj song pack, but the prompt sent me to the Android search results for the last query I had entered instead of a purchasing screen. Then I hit the back button. Then the app froze. It took about four tries until I could pay for the song because the app was somewhat glitchy.
  • Then I tried the same thing on the new LTE-enabled HTC Thunderbolt. After successfully purchasing the music, the Nicki Minaj tracks had somehow disappeared into the Tap Tap Revenge app. Even though I was sent a receipt for 99 cents from the Android Market, the tracks didn’t end up appearing in my Tap Tap music library. I tried it again with a different artist, the Far East Movement, and the track did download. But it took four or five button presses to get the track to play.

Android Central has a good video of the in-app billing process. They called it “pretty simple.” And it is. But that’s under the assumption that the end consumer has a more recent version of the OS, the most recent version of the store, has already saved their credit card to the marketplace and regularly buys products from it. Even in this video, it took 30 seconds for the purchase to be completed. The Android development team should probably put a progress bar here instead of a spinning circle, just at least to give the user an idea of how much time is left to completion.

There are lots of issues to fix. But Android’s always been a continually improving work in progress.